Do the names Alexander Lucius Twilight and Mary Jane Patterson mean anything to you? Well, they should.
As tens of thousands of young men and women obtain their bachelors and masters degrees this commencement season, we are reminded that Alexander Twilight was the first Black to earn a college degree in America when he graduated from Vermont 's Middlebury College in 1823.
And, it wasn't until 40 years later in 1863, that Ohio's Oberlin College conferred the first college degree to an African American woman — Mary Jane Patterson. I mention those two pioneers because in 2008, African American enrollment in higher education has reached an all-time high. That's the good news. The bad news is that only 43 percent of African Americans who enter a four-year college actually graduate – compared to 63 percent of White students.
Given the fact that for most of this nation's history, African-Americans have had to play catch-up in higher education, the low graduation rates for Black men and Black women in this country are disconcerting. According to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, over the past 16 years Black men have improved their graduation rate from 28 percent to 36 percent and over the same period Black women have improved their college completion rate from 34 to 47 percent.
Yet, while graduation rates for both Black men and women are inching up, they continue to remain unacceptably low. We must do more to close the college graduation gap and implement the recommendations outlined in the National Urban League's Opportunity Compact.
FACT: People with a bachelor's degree earn more than one-and-a half times as much as high school graduates.
FACT: African-Americans who complete a four-year college education have median incomes that are comparable to those of White college grads.
FACT: There is a definite correlation between college completion and family support.
FACT: Many African American college students come from single-parent homes.
SOLUTION: Colleges must offer more mentoring and other support programs to help our students stay in school.
FACT: There are too many poor schools and too many high school drop-outs in urban America.
SOLUTION: We need to provide our children with better schools, better teachers, increased access to college prep and advanced placement classes and more access to early childhood education.
FACT: Black students must exercise a greater degree of personal responsibility and study hard, attend classes and earn that all-important college degree.
FACT: Earning a four-year college degree opens the door and gets us all a seat at the table.
SOLUTION: Implement the recommendations and ensure that African Americans have the equal right to thrive, earn, own and prosper.
Marc Morial is the president of the National Urban League.